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Pages from a Chronicle

1968

November 18. Pompano Beach. The state of culture as advertised along the mental five-and-ten of Route USIA: invitations to bowl, roller-skate, have your fortune told; play shuffleboard, miniature golf, jai alai; buy plastic driftwood, electronic fish-finders (isn’t that “unsporting”?), “Spanish Colonial Furniture Custom Made”; patronize “U-$ave Shopping Centers,” “Drive-in Funeral Homes,” “Happy Hour Cocktail Lounges,” a “Jungle Garden Safari” (“See 100 Lions in the Wild”), the “Wigwam Village of Tuckabuck-away and Tribe” (those thrifty Seminoles?); try a garage selling “Personalized Waxing” (how personal can waxing get?), and a First Church of Christ Scientist selling a sermon: “Where Will You Spend Eternity?”

I go to the beach, despite wilting heat, a lowering sky, too many people, and paralyzing blue-bladder hydrozoans (Portuguese men-of-war which, when punctured by sharp sticks or stones, as small boys delight in doing, explode like party balloons). The people are a breed (retired necktie salesmen? exshillelagh manufacturers?) peculiar to, though not bred on, the peninsula, whose interests, to judge from my involuntary eavesdropping, are confined to Dow Jones Averages, logging the weather, and “back home.” Their daughters—some of them in decolleté-of-the-derrière bathing suits, all of them desirable but all intolerably young—are throwing frisbies, plastic discs the size of gramophone records but launched backhand, like quoits. Those Route 1A type advertisements pursue the customer even here, however, trailed from small airplanes at strafing height. “Minnie Pearl’s Chicken: All U Care to Eat,” one of them reads, somewhat ambiguously, it seems to me, in the verb.

1969

May 2. New York. Following a consultation with his doctors, we take I.S. to the New York Hospital at noon; he has complained since yesterday of sharp pains above the left knee, which may indicate that the clot, discovered January 18, has grown.

In fact the femoral artery is found to be entirely blocked, and circulation in the by-pass veins so dangerously reduced that surgery is necessary as soon as the patient can be prepared. The preparations, incidentally, require that I.S. autograph a release, which, he says, “is like signing your own death warrant.” The operation begins under halothane and sodium pentothal,1 with simultaneous oxygen feeding to ventilate the heart, lungs, and blood; and it lasts from 7 to 10 P.M. A catheter, inserted into the artery, removes the (eleven-inch!) embolus by air pressure from below.

May 3. We learn this morning that another clot was found in the other arterial branch, and that a second embolectomy will have to be performed today, as well as a left lumbar sympathectomy, to open all of the pipe lines as widely as possible; the alternative is amputation, which he cannot survive. But can a man of eighty-seven, already weakened by long illness, survive major surgery for the second time in twenty-four hours?

We wait outside the operating theater all evening. At about 11:20 I am taken to an Intensive Care Unit occupied by a patient whose bandages are like the padding of an ice hockey goalie; another patient, muzzled with breathing machinery, whose heartbeats bounce across the screen of a cardiac monitor in the form of green blips; and I.S. who is clearheaded, sprightly (from digitalis?), and wholly in character. When I tell him that V. is anxious to see him, he says, “Why? What’s the matter with her?”

May 12. I.S. has been moved from his small, bleak, Spanish-Harlem-view cub-byhole to the spacious room 1719, which is apparently reserved for sick bigwigs; it looks over the barred sun terrace of the psychiatric clinic, a few floors below, to Welfare Island, where rookie firemen extinguish practice blazes in dummy buildings. Since he is able and eager to listen to music now, I play a recording of Handel’s Theodora, assuming it to be emotionally unharmful to him. Not far along, he says, “Very beautiful and boring. Too many pieces finish too long after the end.” He sleeps afterward, then on waking becomes intransigent, refusing to talk and excluding us all from the privacy of his mind. He will eat only a smidgen of caviar, and that apparently for the ration of whiskey allowed with it, since he knocks back the liquid in an amount disproportionate to the small substance of the solid. He is literally skin and bones now. The skin of his buttocks hangs like laundry when we lift him, and his fingers are so thin that his sapphire signet ring, an apotropaic power to him, will not stay on; his slippers, too, have to be cross-gartered to his ankles like ballet shoes, but with bandages. On the other side of the ledger, the danger of infarction has passed, the carbuncular swelling has diminished, the toe is no longer pustular, and sensation is restored to the shin. The surgical scars, too, from which long threads once protruded, like hairs of a large insect (or Gregor Samsa metamorphosed), are healing, and the skin around them, covered with black and blue maculae, is squamous and starting to peel.

May 20. When I enter the room at noon, I.S. proudly tells me he has scored four more measures of the B-minor Fugue. But in mid-afternoon his temperature flares up to 39° (the New York Hospital uses the apothecary system), from the 38.2° that has been “normal” since the operation and has aroused suspicion he may have the so-called hospital infection (or “staph disease”). His cough is more congested, too, and the respiration rate has accelerated to 44. X-rays are taken and bacterial cultures dispatched for analysis, but whatever the diagnosis, it is not the pneumonia all of us fear2—the “all” including doctors and nurses, whose anxiety is unprofessionally apparent but humanly welcome. I stay at the hospital until midnight. After that a nurse calls me hourly to report small fluctuations of temperature.

May 25. An offended letter from C., whom I.S. failed to recognize in the intermission crowd at Stony Brook last month—reasonably, it seems to me, I.S. having seen him only once in three years and then merely for a few moments. Like other acquaintances of I.S. of other eras, C. is very free in advising me about what is best for him, exactly what he needs, where he should go, what he should do, what my own attitude should be; the latter should not, above all, include any unrealistic optimism, for if I.S. has failed to recognize C., things must be bad indeed. Return to Hollywood, says C., leaving I.S.’s own feelings out of consideration—whether he himself might wish to escape the dispiriting reminders of his illness there—and unable to imagine the sheer physical impossibility of life there now, not only for I.S. but for V., neither of whom can manage the stairs anymore, let alone look after the house.

But I myself am unable now, or unwilling, to sympathize with the point of view of people like C. I do not doubt that I have been guilty of mistakes and misjudgments in trying to take care of I.S. But at least I have given all of myself to him and to the job; and if I hadn’t, not only a great deal more might have gone wrong, but his musical life would have come to an end. As I see it, every true friend of I.S. is indebted to me, at least for that.

The responsibility for every decision has been mine, furthermore, with no help from the C.s or, for that matter, from anyone in I.S.’s own family, except V. And the responsibility is becoming intolerable, and my own equilibrium ever more difficult to maintain, as I am increasingly aware, thanks to my habit of assessing every liability of a course of action for V., then giving my own opinion, and finally backing down from that and opting for another course simply to shirk the blame for any unfavorable consequences.

But it could be that I am becoming ill myself; abulia, perhaps. (Or is it bulimia?) And self-justification, certainly.

I.S. has taken an upturn and emerged from the limbo in which he has been suspended these three weeks. Best of all, that incredibly tenacious demon of his is still there. “I want to work,” he says, “and if I can’t work, I want to die.” Accordingly, we hoist him out of bed to a gantry-type table (with a windlass-like level-adjusting device) where, cocooned in blankets and with his feet resting on a pillow labeled “feet,” he transcribes Bach. Glancing back and forth from his score to the printed copy, which is propped on a reading stand, he might be a monk copying a manuscript, or Jerome translating the Bible. (I am thinking of Carpaccio’s Jerome, seated on a faldstool, in S. Giorgio di Schiavone.)

Some twenty minutes later we lift him back to bed, with the difference that a small gleam of confidence is showing in his eyes; but he is soon up again, and up and down a total of four times during the afternoon. He wants to listen to music, too, but his own “only if you have nothing else.” In fact, I play his tiny two-trumpet Fanfare, which draws the comment, “I have nothing against that.” We also hear the Mendelssohn Octet, Schumann’s first string quartet, Beethoven’s C-minor Variations and the Serenade (Opus 8), and Messiaen’s Cinq Rechants. He follows all of the scores but betrays no sign of pleasure or pain except during the Mendelssohn (pleasure).

His bed oscillates like a bunk on a slowly rolling ship. A sheepskin paillasse is spread over it, but he is so thin now that his back quickly becomes sore at every point of pressure and his position must be shifted every few minutes. About once an hour, moreover, he is obliged to lie totally flat while his left leg, which he crooks like a pelican most of the time, is forcefully—painfully—straightened. “I hurt everywhere,” he grumbles. But the longueurs of medicine schedules—of permuted tests for prothrombin time, of bombardments from a humidifier (like the steam from a manhole cover in a New York street)—and the indignities of bed pans, the occupational disingenuousness of nurses as well as their alternating Grosspapa-talk and baby-talk (“upsy-daisy”)—these must hurt and gall him most of all.

Still he is better, and a thousand hosannas for that. His amazing recuperative powers have again proved themselves, astonishing those who see only the outward and belying decrepitude. His temperature is normal, too, for the first time since May 3, though whether as a result of the river of intravenous effluents poured into him these five days, I cannot say. Once, in a pique, he moves his arms as rapidly as he ever did conducting an orchestra—which provokes a sibylline nurse to remark, “Obviously God doesn’t want you yet, Maestro.” But he will not eat. Nor heed our arguments that only by eating can he return to his piano, which he says is his only wish.

  1. 1

    Which I.S. describes later as “felicity. You have hardly extended your arm for the shot when you are told that the operation is over.”

  2. 2

    It was but we were not told until later.

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